God’s Bits of Wood Summary

Ousmane Sembène

God’s Bits of Wood

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God’s Bits of Wood Summary

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God’s Bits of Wood, a 1960 novel by Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène, tells the story of a railroad strike in colonial Senegal. It is an examination of how the Senegalese and Malians felt about colonial rule and the ways they handled the occupation. It is in part a story of the ways that black men sought to improve their conditions under colonial rule, eventually throwing it off, and the ways that black women sought to improve their lot under local customs.

The story begins with a description of the land in question. It is a stark contrast between the natural landscape and the machine-oriented world many workers experience under the colonial subjugation. The primary conflict is shown between two main characters, Dejean the French manager, and Bakayoko, a Senegalese man.

Bakayoko is a respected union leader, and his family is beloved in their town. The workers of the railroad are preparing to go on strike due to the conditions workers are experiencing. Bakayoko’s ideas inspire the workers to move forward with their strike, but the women in their lives are reluctant to participate because they know they will be responsible for keeping things together at home, and their families will be in danger.

Bakayoko is absent from much of the narrative himself, but his ideas set off an inspiration among the people. The action moves from his family home to the seat of white power in Dakar and the worker base in Thies. It illustrates the different ways that the union leaders experience the strike. Some believe in the cause but find themselves drawn back to old comforts, unwilling to make the sacrifices to stay the course. Others are true believers but find resistance from their families.

The women find new power as the strike goes on. They are hemmed in by cultural expectations of women but as the strike progresses, they find ways to exercise their power over their home spaces in the changing period of colonialism.

The circumstances become challenging as food and water become scarce, and the strike turns violent. The deadly confrontations cause the loss of Bakayoko’s mother, forcing him to return to his homeland after being away for so long. He takes what many feel is his rightful place in the resistance. His negotiations are futile, however, largely because he is unable to control his temper, so the women take matters into their own hands, planning a 60 km march.

The women set off. They struggle with obstacles such as weather, hunger, and fatigue, but they are triumphant in reaching Dakar. There they are met by cultural traditionalists, who warn them about subverting their roles and behaving in such an unfeminine way. Bakayoko delivers a speech that inspires a national march and begins to bring real change to Senegal.

The government eventually backs down. At the end of the story, a group of French leaders is holed up in a protected community refusing to leave their posts. One of them, in a fit of frustration, runs outside only to be shot. The story ends in the silence afterward with a lone voice singing about the virtues of protesting without hatred.

The story uses the imagery of nature and the machine to signal the ways that change can be good and bad at the same time. There is nostalgia for the old ways before the French occupied the territory, but also the acknowledgement that the railway brings about new opportunities for the people there.

The machine is the railway, but it is also the occupation of colonial powers. They come promising to alter the land for the better, but end up using human lives as commodities to make the occupying country rich. Hierarchies develop, and the faceless rule of France rankles the local people who are watching their old traditions die.

Women find more power under the modern ways of the French but in the end, this power is not worth much when the local people are removed from making decisions about their homeland. The women’s march inspires a wider scale protest and heralds the end of colonial occupation.

The march is also a testament to struggling without giving in to hatred. The peak of the novel is the women’s march, and the author uses this story to signify that Africa can overcome decades of colonial oppression to become united again. The author writes a history of decolonization from the point of view of the oppressed, sharply changing how we see the occupation itself. He believes that Africa will once again triumph and come into the modern era as a power again.

The novel has been praised as a compelling look at the events leading up to one of the first countries to demand independence from colonial rule. It is measured and humanizes the struggle between tradition and change, culture and technology, and the ways that time both usurps and heals.